Coronavirus pandemic

Russia says its Covid-19 vaccine could be ready by September

Top Moscow official denies claims that its hackers tried to steal data from rival researchers in three countries

Mr Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the government-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund, says he is so confident in his country's leading vaccine candidate that he has taken it himself and had his whole family vaccinated, including his parents, who are in their 70s.

MOSCOW • A top Russian official has said his country could roll out a vaccine against Covid-19 as soon as September, while denying accusations that hackers working for the country's intelligence agency tried to steal sensitive data from rival researchers in Britain, Canada and the United States.

"Russia may be one of the first to produce a vaccine against the backdrop of the billions that are being invested in the US and all the pharma companies working on it," said Mr Kirill Dmitriev, the chief executive of the government-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is financing one of the country's efforts to devise a vaccine. "It's a little bit of a shocking story."

President Vladimir Putin has made finding a vaccine a top priority as Russia has recorded more than 750,000 Covid-19 cases, making it the fourth-most affected country in the world. In Russia's race to be the first to find a vaccine against Covid-19, it is taking an approach that would be shunned in other countries, claiming it will know in just three months of trials whether its leading candidate works.

Russia's rapid approach to vaccine development differs from that in Western Europe and the US, where researchers typically run phase 3 trials for months to show safety and effectiveness. If Russia proclaims success in the hunt for a vaccine before other candidates, it could create a world of duelling vaccines and geopolitical battles over who gets supplies.

Mr Dmitriev's comments came after Britain, Canada and the US said hackers working with the group APT29, part of Russian military intelligence, had used malware to try to seize vaccine research. Moscow quickly rejected the accusations as "groundless", and its ambassador to London said in a British television interview yesterday that the claims made "no sense".

But British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab yesterday said he was "absolutely confident" in the allegation, branding the behaviour "outrageous and reprehensible". He told Sky News: "We're absolutely confident the Russian intelligence agencies were engaged in a cyber attack on research and development efforts in organisations in this country and internationally with a view either to sabotage or to profit."

Mr Dmitriev said Russia did not need to steal information from rival vaccine developers because it had signed a deal with AstraZeneca to make the University of Oxford's Covid-19 vaccine at R-Pharm, one of Russia's largest drug companies.

AstraZeneca said in a statement that Russia will become one of the hubs for production and supply of the vaccine to international markets, with plans to export doses to more than 30 countries. Under the deal, the vaccine vector was transferred to Russia, where R-Pharm will produce the finished doses.

Mr Dmitriev also said he is so confident in Russia's leading vaccine candidate that he has taken it himself and had his whole family vaccinated, including his parents, who are in their 70s.

The vaccine, financed by RDIF and developed by the state-backed Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, has completed a phase 1 trial in 50 people, all of whom are members of the Russian military.

The vaccine is one of 26 experimental shots being developed in Russia, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said last Wednesday. Gamaleya's candidate is a viral vector vaccine based on a human adenovirus - a common cold virus - fused with the spike protein of Sars-CoV-2 to stimulate an immune response.

Analysts have questioned Russia's rushed unorthodox approach. "The current situation with the vaccine looks like a race and sufficient clinic testing hasn't been done," said Mr Sergey Shulyak, chief executive officer at Moscow-based consulting company DSM Group.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2020, with the headline Russia says its Covid-19 vaccine could be ready by September. Subscribe